Wednesday, July 10, 2013

McGrath (interrum report)

So, I'm now a third of the way through the audiobook of McGrath's new biography of C. S. Lewis, and I must say I'm impressed. Whether it establishes itself as the standard biography (displacing the current trifecta of Green and Hooper, Sayer, and Wilson*) I don't know, but I cd see that happening. It'll certainly be a strong contender for book of the year next time nominations for the Mythopoeic Award come round.

This biography is primarily based on the massive 8,000 page three-volume COLLECTED LETTERS, supplemented as needed by other sources, and also lays stress on Lewis's northern-Ireland background, which the author thinks established the default landscapes in most of Lewis's work. No major revelations or recasting of the familiar narrative so far, but a number of small points tell in McGrath's favor.

First off, he doesn't have a cow over the idea that Lewis actually sometimes did chores at the Kilns. Warnie Lewis considered it monstrous that he, a retired officer, sometimes had to walk the dog, and his brother on occasion even had to take out the trash. McGrath doesn't think that makes Mrs. Moore a monster or Lewis a battered spouse: he thinks it's perfectly normal. Score one for McGrath.

Second, he suggests that Lewis and Paddy Moore might actually have been quite close (there's some evidence that Lewis tried to get assigned to the same military unit as Paddy), an idea some dismiss without even considering seriously.

Third, he suggests that Lewis was the love of Arthur Greeves' life. Greeves confessed his homosexuality to Lewis, who made it clear he did not reciprocate Greeves' feelings; the two agreed to remain friends. That's interesting, and so far as I know, new.

Fourth, Mrs Moore. McGrath's mind doesn't boggle at the idea of CSL falling in love with an older woman. This sets him ahead of those who can't understand a young man falling in love with a much older woman (Janie M.) but have no problem believing that same man cd later fall in love with a much younger woman (Joy G.). Also, McGrath understands that it's not fair to collapse descriptions of Janie M. from a quarter-century later as a sick old women suffering from Alzheimer's with the way she was when Lewis fell in love with her -- an elementary point that's eluded most.

Fifth, he makes it clear that Lewis treated his father badly during the last decade of the latter's life, though McGrath is inclined to give him a break on this (far more than I personally would; I agree w. CSL himself that it's the most shameful episode in his life).

Having gotten to the point in the narrative where CSL has just met Tolkien and the Lewis-Moore family has just bought the Kilns, I'll be v. interested to see if McGrath gets another important point right. The odd idea has grown up that CSL had an affair with Mrs. Moore that lasted a decade or so, but broke it off when he converted to Xianity. There's no evidence for this sudden celibacy at all, other than an assumption that Xian Lewis of the 1930s and 40s wd behave differently than the highly moral but non-Xian Lewis of the 1920s;** instead it seems clear she remained his common-law wife (and he her common-law husband) till her death.

We'll see if he continues as well as he's begun.

--John R.
current reading: BILBO'S JOURNEY by Joseph Pearce [2012]
also: CAPTAIN SIR RICHARD FRANCIS BURTON (biography) by Edward Rice [1990]
current audiobook: C. S. LEWIS: ECCENTRIC GENUIS, RELUCTANT PROPHET by McGrath [2012]

*Wilson is on record saying he believes McGrath's to be a better biography than his own -- a rare level of endorsement among biographers, I shd think.

**dubious, given CSL's later attempts to convince the Bishop of Oxford that the Anglican ban on marrying a divorcee shdn't apply to him.

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